Congregations move to cyberspace and parking lots for worship

Pastor Shell Osbon and his wife Missy, talk to the crowd during the Drive-in church service at the Life Church Smyrna Assembly of God Sunday, April 5, 2020. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Pastor Shell Osbon and his wife Missy, talk to the crowd during the Drive-in church service at the Life Church Smyrna Assembly of God Sunday, April 5, 2020. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Any normal Palm Sunday, the congregants of Pastor Shell Osbon’s church would stroll into the sanctuary and exchange hugs and high fives.

But this Sunday, the start of Christianity’s holiest week, was anything but normal. Dozens of members of Life Church Smyrna Assembly of God pulled their cars into the parking lot and never left their seats.

“Hey y’all!” read a sign held by a church staffer, “Please! Stay in your cars.”

Such is practicing faith in the era of the coronavirus, where churches, synagogues, mosques and other houses of worship are scrambling to find ways to tend to their parishioners. Many have turned to livestreaming or pre-recorded video or group chat programs such as Zoom.

Instead of opening a hymnal, Life Church’s drive-in attendees tuned their radios to a low frequency FM station to hear the praise band, members stationed outside at least six-feet apart. A small trailer, about the size a landscaper might use, doubled as Osbon’s parking lot pulpit.

“Turn to somebody and just wave at them,” Osbon said. “That’s about the best we can do right now.”

Last month many local communities instituted ordinances that restricted how houses of worship could gather.

Gov. Brian Kemp's new statewide shelter-in-place order, which took effect Friday, doesn't prohibit congregations from worshiping but it does require people to keep their distances from one another.

Osbon, a chaplain for Smyrna’s fire and police departments, said he consulted with state and local agencies to make sure their services comply with the orders. Most members chose to watch the livestream, but Osbon said the church could lose the drive-in services the church has held the past three Sundays if congregants break the rules.

“Thank you for not getting out of your vehicle,” he said. “Thank you for not hugging somebody you might want to.”

Summer Osbon holds up a sign as her father, Pastor Shell Osbon, talks to the crowd during the Drive-in church service at the Life Church Smyrna Assembly of God Sunday, April 5, 2020 STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

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Coronavirus has continued its spread on Sunday, as law enforcement agencies across the state largely reported compliance with Kemp’s order — in church congregations, and beyond.

State officials said confirmed cases of COVID-19 had increased by 359 since Saturday to 6,742 Sunday evening, while deaths attributed to the disease climbed by 11 to 219.

State and local government officials said Georgians appear to be abiding by the governor’s order, with few warnings issued across the state. Parks in metro Atlanta were a little less crowded than recent weekends. People on Georgia’s coast stretched their legs on newly reopened beaches, but beachgoers appeared to be abiding by social distancing rules, officials said.

A Georgia State Patrol and Department of Natural Resources service call report noted only a handful of warnings for large gatherings, and metro Atlanta agencies also reported few problems.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if we came out the other side without any arrests,” Gwinnett County Sheriff’s Deputy Shannon Volkadav said.

The state’s lakes and parks also remain open, with state rangers and local deputies monitoring for large groups.

Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills’ office fielded many calls from residents confused by what’s allowed under Kemp’s order.

Putnam deputies broke up a group of about 20 people gathered on an island in Lake Oconee on Saturday afternoon, he said but boaters largely obeyed the state’s guidelines.

Kemp: Community is what stops coronavirus

Sunday marked the start of Holy Week for Christians leading up to Easter. Wednesday starts the Passover remembrance for Jews. The Muslim holy month of Ramadan starts the evening of April 23.

Kemp’s shelter-in-place order didn’t specifically mention religious services, though additional guidance from his office strongly urged houses of worship to maintain social distancing or risk further restrictions. If they fail to comply, he said recently during a private call with more than 800 clergy members, the state could shut them down.

“The community is going to be what stops this coronavirus,” Kemp recently told clergy members, reminding them some of Georgia’s worst hot spots — Albany and Cartersville — were linked to religious services.

Missy Osbon and her husband, Pastor Shell Osbon, greet the crowd at the beginning of the Drive-in church service at the Life Church Smyrna Assembly of God Sunday, April 5, 2020. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

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The pandemic has put clergy members in the position of doing what was unimaginable just a few weeks ago, actively urging members not to gather in person to try to stem the disease’s spread.

That is a particular challenge for Jewish houses of worship, where a debate is raging about how to celebrate Passover, a holiday starting Wednesday that centers on the tradition of a large community meal called a seder with family, friends and guests.

“In many ways, it’s the Thanksgiving of the Jewish world,” said Rabbi Joshua Lesser of Bet Haverim said Sunday.

But Lesser said many people separated from family are planning to gather electronically to feel connected even though they’re stuck apart. They’re learning how to make matzah, an unleavened bread, at home, or are looking for other symbols or traditional foods that can take the place of the items they can’t find.

“In extraordinary times, Jews have said it’s important to observe the ritual in some way,” he said. “Let’s let go of perfection. It will make it nearly impossible to have any joy.”

The Rev. Chase Campbell, associate rector of Christ Church of Atlanta, a small Anglican church in Buckhead, bought a camera and spent a week teaching himself video editing software to pre-record Palm Sunday services. His kids and wife helped film his sermon, and members of the congregation filmed themselves reading Scripture and other parts of the ritual-heavy Anglican service.

“It’s a way for the congregation to still participate in worship,” Campbell said.

In Glenwood Park, Mignon Crawford and fiancé Montserrat Miller hatched a plan to make 60 palm crosses they carefully sanitized for families of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church near Emory University Hospital Midtown.

The couple, who had to put off their planned wedding this month until at least October, got up before sunrise and set out on a 30-mile delivery route.

“Mon and I are super extroverts, and it’s been a struggle for us not to be with our friends,” Crawford said.

Staff writer Greg Bluestein contributed to this report. 

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